The Lioness Project: Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

This week’s Lioness was imprisoned for her Japanese ancestry after the attack on Pearl Harbor. She devoted her life to exposing the racist rationale for the “internment” camps, helping to provide victims with justice and redress.

“It is my fervent hope that persons who review the
historical documents that we gathered will help to develop more
respect for the individuality and dignity of others, regardless of
ethnicity, gender, and religious beliefs.”
—Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga

In 1942, when Los Angeles teenager Aiko Yoshinaga was a high school senior, her principal informed the Japanese-American students in her class that they would not receive their diplomas because “your people bombed Pearl Harbor.” The December 7, 1941 attack had generated a wave of anti-Japanese legislation that culminated in the relocation of residents with as little as 1/16th Japanese ancestry into concentration camps.  This included Korean- and Taiwanese-Americans (both were Japanese colonies at the time). 117,000 people, two-thirds of whom were native-born US citizens, were rounded up and incarcerated.

Aiko and her high school boyfriend were terrified that they would be separated, and eloped. She was sent with her husband’s family to the Manzanar detention facility near Death Valley, while her parents went to Jerome, Arkansas. According to a 1943 War Relocation Authority report, housing in the camps consisted of “tar paper-covered barracks of simple frame construction without plumbing or cooking facilities of any kind.” Multiple families lived together in small “apartments” with bare metal army beds, a single stove, and nothing else. They had to stuff canvas bags with hay for mattresses.

Aiko gave birth to her first child in the camp. After receiving word that her father was gravely ill, her family was permitted a transfer to the Arkansas camp. Her father lived long enough to meet his granddaughter just one time.

In 1944, the Supreme Court ruled that the forced removal of Japanese Americans from the West Coast was constitutional, but ruled that the incarceration of loyal citizens was not, regardless of their ancestry. In 1945, President Roosevelt rescinded the executive order that established the camps. Detainees were given $25 and a train ticket back to their original places of residence. After three years of incarceration, most had lost their homes and businesses, and had little to return to. Aiko moved to New York with her relatives, while the United States government added insult to injury, and drafted her husband into military service for WWII.  They divorced not long after.

In the years that followed, Aiko worked as secretary and became involved in activism in response to the Vietnam War. She remarried in 1978 and moved to Washington, D.C., where she began researching wartime exclusion and incarceration at the National Archives. She spent years compiling and cataloguing public records, and when Congress established a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Citizens in 1980, she was hired as researcher.

It was during this time that she found an early draft of a report that justified the incarceration of Japanese Americans because their cultural traits made it “impossible to separate the sheep from the goats”. There was no way to tell if they were loyal or disloyal, because they were Asian. This directly contradicted the argument the government had publicly made for the camps—that there simply wasn’t time to determine loyalty—and was critical to the commission’s findings that the camps were a result of “race prejudice, war hysteria and the failure of political leadership.”

Aiko’s work allowed lawyers to appeal the convictions of three Japanese Americans who had resisted internment: Fred Korematsu, Minoru Yasui, and Gordon Hirabayashi. Korematsu’s case had been the basis of 1944’s Korematsu v. United States, wherein the Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the camps as a matter of “military urgency.” All three were exonerated, and their convictions overturned.

The American Civil Liberties Act of 1988 awarded the victims of the Japanese internment and their families $20,000 and a formal apology. Today Aiko Herzig-Yoshinaga lives in Los Angeles. She is 92 years old, and continues to research and to speak out against systematic racism and oppression.